Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. Nov. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Attacks on books at Iowa schools are dispiriting and wrong; the attack on educators is worse

A rash of complaints mostly about sexual content in Des Moines-area public school library books was cause, for most observers, for some head-shaking but not much else.

Districts tend to have good processes for sorting out these things. And “How young is too young?” is a fair question, even if those asking seem to hold very dim views of teenagers’ and younger children’s maturity.

Things have quickly gotten worse, most acutely with Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman’s threat to imprison librarians and other educators who make available books he finds objectionable.

We differ foundationally with Chapman on nearly every aspect of this:

— When we lack evidence to the contrary, we trust that educators have kids’ well-being first in mind and will resolve close calls in favor of free expression. Chapman views them as enemies of the people, either negligently or maliciously poisoning young minds.

— We see, in the excerpts read and shown at public meetings, frank discussions and, yes, portrayals, of sex acts and sexual abuse. They are part of award-winning longer stories relevant to young people’s experiences. Chapman sees works that appeal “to the prurient interest,” according to the state law already on the books that he says school employees may be violating.

— We recognize these books were bought because children with uncertain support at home or elsewhere need affirming and honest literature, and they need it — in Chapman’s words — “in the safest environment that they should be in: public schools.” Chapman seems to see only drawings that “can’t be shown on the 5 o’clock news.”

Even if a problem were evident with school review processes — and, to be unmistakably clear, there is not — revisions to a criminal obscenity statute would be a wildly disproportionate response, as commentators have pointed out already. It would be far more likely to deprive students of any remotely challenging literature and of good teachers than to “protect” them in any real way.

Public libraries serve everyone; book banning serves few

Parents have told administrators and board members that children can be groomed for abuse by seeing graphic depictions of sex and that some curriculum conflicts with beliefs taught in homes. Educators are capable of fairly assessing such concerns, and any evidence underlying them.

Register reporters and the Iowa Starting Line news website have published thorough explanations of the books’ histories and messages. In most cases the challenged books are available in high school libraries. A book’s inclusion in assigned readings for a class poses different questions, as would its presence in a middle or elementary school. Schools can already ably handle those distinctions, too.

Many of the excerpts that people have singled out deal with same-sex relationships. Perhaps the sex scenes on Chapman’s watch list for the police will include the works of Judy Blume, James Joyce, longtime Iowan Jane Smiley and many, many others. In any case, as we wrote three years ago when protesters raised a ruckus about LGBTQ materials in Orange City’s public library: “We all should be able to agree on an agenda of intellectual freedom and equitable service and access. Public libraries must serve everyone: Black and white, rich and poor, religious and atheist. And yes, gay and straight.”

’1619 Project’ author: Give children the path to an open mind

It was a sign of our divided times Monday night that as journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at a Des Moines benefit dinner about libraries as pillars of free access to ideas and opportunity, Iowans at two metro school board meetings were discussing removing books from school libraries and restricting curriculum to reflect an “honest, patriotic education.”

Hannah-Jones, a native of Waterloo and winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship, was here to accept the 2021 Iowa Author Award from the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.

Hannah-Jones led the New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” whose title references the introduction of slavery into America. It’s a collection of essays, photos, poems and other works that examines how slavery continues to shape our nation. She’s also published a new book, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” and a companion children’s book.

Hannah-Jones credits the Waterloo Public Library for opening a world of reading, learning and opportunity for her that she could not have imagined as a child of working-class parents. Her curiosity, voracious reading and evermore challenging texts introduced to her in high school by Black studies teacher Ray Dial prompted her to question why Black history was absent from the rest of the curriculum.

She’s proud of her Iowa roots. The ideas she began to explore here have propelled a lifelong journey of questioning, investigating and learning. She expressed dismay that in her home state, a bill was introduced in the Legislature last session to reduce funding for any school district that used “The 1619 Project” in its curriculum. That bill didn’t pass, but another did that bans teaching certain concepts related to race and sex.

Her message to school board members in the audience was pointed: If the First Amendment’s protection of free expression is to mean anything, no government entity should ban books or prohibit teaching about ideas just because someone doesn’t like them. Do not deny Iowa children the path to an open mind.

Indeed, it was refreshing to hear several speakers make this point during a public comment period at Monday’s Urbandale school board meeting. (Also of note: The board granted 12 speakers five minutes each to talk; the Des Moines City Council should give that a try.)

The seriousness of the free expression issue, though, should not drown out Chapman’s willingness to smear educators and anyone else with a different view of things: “Nor should any decent person think that this is OK,” he said Monday.

It’s time to stop the intimidation and demonization of teachers. It’s time for Iowans, who have always prized their public schools, to rally behind teachers and school districts.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Nov. 28, 2021.

Editorial: Wisconsin legislation key to supporting volunteer firefighters

In many rural areas and small communities in the tri-state area, volunteers are the lifeblood of emergency services.

The men and women who serve as volunteer firefighters and emergency responders fill a void of critical need in a system stretched thin in many places. While they don’t collect salaries for the vital role they play, these workers deserve the benefit of assistance when the traumatic nature of the job exacts a toll.

Under current Wisconsin law, volunteer firefighters, correctional officers, dispatchers, medical examiners, coroners and emergency medical service workers are ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder without proving the diagnosis resulted from “unusual stress of greater dimensions” than the emotional strain and tensions experienced by all employees on the job. Meanwhile, paid firefighters, as well as police officers, are eligible for benefits with a PTSD diagnosis by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.

That disparity defies logic, and some Wisconsin lawmakers are ready to right the wrong.

Legislation to close the eligibility gap in Wisconsin is working its way through the Statehouse, co-sponsored by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and backed by Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, among others.

Lawmakers in this neck of the woods know the critical service that volunteer firefighters and emergency workers provide. The impact of the legislation could be significant in Wisconsin, where about 75% of the state’s fire and EMS departments are volunteer-based.

It comes down to fairness. In many counties, volunteers work right alongside their paid counterparts. They are called to the same traumatic events, witnessing sometimes catastrophic injuries, accidents and illness.

In small communities, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to be called to the scene of an crash or a fire only to find the victim to be someone they know.

Repeated exposure to trauma and violence can easily develop into PTSD. Providing help in their time of need is small recompense for the duty volunteers fulfill.

Iowa and Illinois have similarly uneven playing fields that should be rectified. In Iowa, state statute also holds that a person’s mental injuries must result from conditions that markedly exceed those typically experienced by colleagues working within the same profession.

Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers introduced a nearly identical bill to the Wisconsin proposal that would make a diagnosis of PTSD sufficient to receive workers’ compensation benefits, but the bill did not advance out of committee.

All three states should correct this disparity that impacts this indispensable piece of the emergency services safety net. Here’s hoping Wisconsin legislators make it law and lead the way to closing the gap.

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Quad-City Times. Nov. 28, 2021.

Editorial: Take a breath and celebrate

For more than four years, we’ve watched each day as it’s risen from the depths of the Mississippi River: The new Interstate-74 bridge is the centerpiece of the $1.1 billion improvement to the I-74 corridor that stretches from 53rd Street in Iowa to just south of the Avenue of the Cities in Illinois.

It is a project like the Quad-Cities has never seen before. Built to last 100 years, the span is more than a mere conveyance. It is the product of decades of work, vision, planning, creativity and dogged determination on the part of countless people.

To name all of them would be impossible. Even to narrow it to a handful of the most important is fruitless.

As a longtime observer noted, “It would be impossible to come up with five because there are probably 50.”

Even 50 is likely an underestimate. Over the decades that it took to bring this bridge to reality, the numbers who contributed are incalculable. This truly is a bridge that belongs to the Quad-Cities, as well as those who don’t live here but joined with us to plan, design and build what, for generations to come, will be a landmark.

This Wednesday, there will be a public celebration of that landmark. From 1-4 p.m., people can walk on the new bridge before it opens to the motoring public.

The bridge is expected to open for traffic in December. A precise date has not been set.

It’s hard to believe this time has finally arrived.

“It’s going to feel weird when it’s done, really,” Denise Bulat, the longtime executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission, said the other day.

Weird, indeed. We’ve talked about it for so long that, yes, it is a bit strange that we’ll soon get to actually use the new bridge.

There was a time when the new I-74 bridge existed only on paper, when its shape and form were just an aspiration. Yet, as those who have followed the process most closely over the years put it, an endless roster of local, state and federal officials, as well as in the private sector, have relentlessly pushed this endeavor along; sometimes it was from different directions, sometimes in different ways – but it always forward.

There were key moments over the years: The 1998 finding in a Mississippi River crossings study that improving the I-74 corridor was a must; the $67 million congressional earmark in 2005 that signaled the federal government was ready to invest in the project; the 2006 decision to pursue the twin basket-handle design that now illuminates our skyline; the mountains of work that went into producing the 2003 draft environmental impact statement and, then in its final form, earning a federal “record of decision” in 2009, providing a formal certainty to move forward.

There were, of course, a lot of other mileposts. The decision to compress the construction timeline from what originally had been expected to be five years; the brilliant notion of including a recreational path across the span, along with an observatory and an elevator structure; the accompanying changes to the downtowns of Bettendorf and Moline; the delays that eventually led to a nearly four-and-a-half year build time.

There was the time when the nation’s top transportation official called the existing I-74 bridge “one of the worst bridges” he’d ever seen in America but, as Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn put it, still applied pressure from above to get the new version built.

And lest anybody forget, there is the work provided by the hundreds, probably thousands, of skilled men and women who actually built this bridge. Their contribution should always be remembered.

So, we are ready for this bridge to finally open for business. We are ready, as one person put it last week, to open “a piece of art in the middle of the most famous river in the world.”

We expect for many – especially those from out of town who cross it – this bridge will merely be a way to get from one side of the Mississippi River to the other, albeit one that is wider, safer, and more functional than the current span. But for us, the new I-74 bridge is more than that: It is the culmination of years of hard work; years of vision, patience and persistence.

It is an endeavor that required the efforts of countless people.

It is now time for all those people to take a deep breath of satisfaction and celebrate.

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